Many wine regions around the country, probably even the world, are themed. Fair enough, they've gotta get bums on seats some how, so many provide extra bits in the towns and centres and on their brochures that make them different, you know, not just a wine region. Some are quite glamorous, others make every effort to make it more like the city and others are full of pictures that are hard to find unless you're in a chopper on a stranger's back block of land.
But the McLaren Vale feels less like a tourism area and more like the real thing. You see, the McLaren Vale is a wine region and that's what they get on and do. Make wine, crackerjack wine. And while everyone else is building theme parks the McLaren Vale has established itself as a world class wine making region. They are a premium grape-growing area and as a result sport a quiver of medals that'd make Thorpy feel like an under achiever.
But this focus on wine is not about having nothing but wine, hell no, the place jumps. It's just that everything in town is with wine in mind. You get the buzz that it's a bit more of a community. Sit on the patio for breakfast at Market 190 with a local and it's a honk and wave every two minutes; when word gets out you have a booking at the Star of Greece, a table of four swells to eight until of course the owner comes and joins you, turning a relaxed lunch into some sort of festival; after-dinner drinks took us back to Tatachilla winery, which like most wineries in the middle of vintage is on 24-7 and, like most nightclubs in the city, was going off.
The people in the McLaren Vale do what they do and seem to be doing what they love and for that very reason make you feel as welcome as a cold beer after a long hard day. And we all know just how enjoyable that can be. Really, you should try it sometime.
The McLaren Vale is known for its spectacular quality shiraz. It's full of ripe fruit, sunshine, soft sexy tannins, loads of flavour and more body than the Village People. Like any wine, shiraz comes in different styles and you can often pick regional characteristics of where the wine is made -- much like someone's accent will help you pick what area they are from. Of course the styles within the region do vary, but the McLaren Vale wines are all about loads of ripe flavour. A key element of all the ripeness and flavour in a McLaren Vale shiraz is the moderating effect the ocean has on the temperature (it can't freeze so the surrounding air is never too cold in winter and it doesn't get too hot so it keeps things cooler at night in summer). Those who know a bit more call it the maritime effect. Also, because of almost minimal chance of rain at harvesting times, which forces other growers to pick early to protect the fruit from damage, the grapes are able to fully ripen so that when they're ready to pick, they're obese with sugar, sun and all that flavour.
Another reason for this high quality wine is pride. It's in everyone in the Vale's best interests to uphold this standard and this, my friend, makes it in your best interests to try their wine. Quickly.
There really are too many good shiraz to mention, they all do it and do them well, and some say this is the very reason you should try the region's cabernet -- it's also awesome, there's less demand and you know you can always get it. Have a swig of The Angelus at the big ol' cellar door at Wirra Wirra. You'll know what I mean. Other major varieties grown in the region include chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc and grenache.
Not scared of a little vinous adventure, a few wineries in the region are now trying varieties that aren't so common elsewhere but that succeed in similar climates abroad. Makes sense. Coriole is working with the Italian grape sangiovese, Tatachilla is cleaning up with their merlot and Kangarilla Road is having a go with the spicy red zinfandel.
Although its good, there's more than just shiraz. Eating
When it comes to food in the region, there're a lot of contrasts, different pockets of atmosphere and cuisine hidden in different crannies of the valley. The range makes it difficult to choose from but easy to be accommodated, from quality counter meals, lush fine dining, gourmet pizzas, views on tap and the freshest seafood not still living.
Pull-in for a top counter meal and a hand-picked bottle from the cellar at the Victory Hotel. You know it's good when the locals are still there after hours. Go for something a little more formal at Limeburners restaurant or mow into a serve of fresh seafood hauled right out of the sea and on to your plate at the Star of Greece. The Salopian Inn is a popular and delicious spot to dine and is set in an old inn, first licensed in 1851, that served as a stopover for travellers in the area. A great cellar door, great food and spots of local produce are available for sale. There's also Market 190, which turns on the best vintage breakfast for red-eyed cellar rats as they come off their shifts. It also makes great coffee and sells an assortment of useful, edible and quality products. Good food, great vibe. You'll need some sneaky connections and a dose of patience to get a guernsey at Russell's Kitchen. Set in Willunga, it's, as the name would suggest, a pizza place run by Russell. He makes tasty gourmet pizzas that are wood-fired right there in front of you. Problem is, he's only open Friday nights and everyone loves him. Good luck, they say it's all worth it. d'Arry's Veranda at d'Arenberg winery has views on tap as well as high end but great food and Woodstock coterie, set in the thick bushland where they'll also do you up a travelling hamper.
The locally grown edibles in the Vale serve as a photo album and history lesson on all those who blew in during the region's development, brought with them something new and stuck it in the ground. It's fascinating to wander around and hear that in the past, the hills rolling up to the horizon used to turn white with almond blossom and in fact that the Willunga area used to supply most of the almonds sold in Oz up until the 80s. But the increased value placed on the region's vines, cheaper imports and the huge amount of water necessary to hydrate almond trees has seen a lot of them replaced by vines. The Almond Train, a shop in the main street of McLaren Vale, still sells as assortment of local almond produce.
Olives are another thing grown in abundance during the region's history. You can still see the gnarled and hardy old bushes growing wild throughout the valley. Try some of the olives at The Olive Grove. They're made with as little disruption to the fruit as possible and if you can taste undisruptiveness in an olive, I reckon this is it. There's an assortment of vacuum packs to take away and some truly delicious marinated olives, all made on the property. Coriole Vineyard stocks a selection of oils and also provides full tastings at the cellar door.
Maxwell Wines are the largest producers of mead in the southern hemisphere. It's an ancient drink the Vikings made from fermented honey when everything else was frozen ... or something similar. It's an intriguing drink with a fascinating past.
Hamlet is the sausage man. Everyone goes there and everyone eats the sausages that're sold from the old school shop that hasn't been altered since it was built way back when. If you'd like to sample one of the big fellas before you get there, the big breakfast at Market 190 comes with a genuine Hamlet's. Look for the strawberry the size of a car on the side of the road and you'll know you're at the Agon Berry farm. When in season, you can pick your own fruit from the range of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. That or you can pull up to the dinky red caravan on the roadside and buy the pre-picked ones -- everyone buys from here including local fruit and vegie shops and restaurants. If you like your cheese smooth, soft and gooey, try the Woodside Cheeses from Coriole vineyard. There's a selection of goat's cheeses that'd send you to an extremely happy death if you let it and all available in one of the nicest settings in the Vale.
Fancy a Beer?
The Victory Hotel is way more than watering hole. Run by a friendly bloke called Doug, it's home to locals and visitors alike. Like all worthy pubs it has a front bar with the colourful front bar crowd, raffle tickets for sale and beer on tap. The backroom serves as the dining area where you get great pub meals and awesome views if you face the right way. There's also a beer garden which you could happily spend the day in and from which you can get a peek at Doug's vineyard. He's harvesting the vines next season and, with the winemaking skill of Tatachilla's Justin McNamee, is going to produce his own wine. The highlight though, is Doug's cellar. A huge selection that's hand-picked from all over the globe because they're good and Doug likes it. He sells it closer to normal retail rather than at big restaurant wine list prices "I'd rather see people enjoying it upstairs." And they do. It's a top spot to relax, enjoy a meal, a wine and some rollicking old tales. Oh, and if you see Doug, ask him to tell you the one about the couple who celebrated their first anniversary at the Victory. It's a cracker.
The Alma Hotel in Willunga is a great old pub that draws the locals in for beer like a siren does a sailor, especially in winter when everyone gathers 'round the open fire. The Willunga Hotel is another pub that dishes up old school charm, meals and beers with gusto.
Stay a While
Your hosts make your time at Willunga House B&B entertaining and super-relaxing. There's five big old bedrooms, a communal living area complete with smooth tunes, an open fire and a balcony. Breakfasts are an event in themselves and if you actually get up and leave the place, it's close to everything in Willunga and a short drive from the McLaren Vale. Ask for the red room if you can. Ashcroft is a new B&B that as modern facilities, private patios and is very well hosted, as is the Bellevue B&B, another great spot to rest your head. For those who'd like a little more independence during their McLaren Vale visit, Aunt Amanda's Cottage, which sits between McLaren Vale and Kangarilla, is a self-contained cottage complete with open fires, baths and a rural backdrop. You just couldn't help but get romantic there.